A mayoral hopeful’s reputation and popularity may be at stake when his former campaign treasurer and a fundraiser go on trial this week on charges of conspiring to break campaign finance laws to raise ever more money for him.
City Comptroller John Liu has not been charged and is not expected to testify at his ex-aides’ conspiracy trial. But the prosecution, coming as the city’s most heated mayoral race in years gets into full swing, is making the case into something of a trial of his political prospects.
Liu’s ex-campaign treasurer, Jia “Jenny” Hou, and former Liu fundraiser Xing “Oliver” Wu Pan are facing federal charges of conspiring to break campaign finance laws. Federal prosecutors say the two circumvented a $4,950 contribution limit by using straw donors — essentially, funneling money from one contributor through another — and by allowing the candidate to claim greater matching funds, so they could boost the Democrat’s campaign war chest.
Both Hou, 26, of Queens, and Pan, of Hudson County, N.J., have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and attempted wire fraud; Hou also has pleaded not guilty to obstructing justice and making false statements. The trial was scheduled to begin Monday but was delayed until at least Wednesday because of questions raised about the mental health condition of Pan.
As the trial looms, the 46-year-old Liu has not avoided the subject, sometimes joking that his nickname is “embattled comptroller.”
In recent years, he has tried to project an image as a strong mayoral contender who can draw
support from two important Democratic constituencies, minority communities and labor unions. A former city councilman, he has striven as comptroller to position himself as a fiscal watchdog, putting more city spending records online and sharply criticizing a scandal-plagued city payroll technology project.
While pundits and analysts have seen the investigation as a body blow to his mayoral chances, Liu is attending candidate forums and otherwise signaling he plans to run, though he hasn’t yet formally entered the race.